29 October 2011

Grandmaster Kang Shin Chul's Creative Pattern

Grandmaster Kang Shin Chul (right) and myself.
Grandmaster Kang Shin Chul was inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame on August 25, 2011. At the banquet after the certification ceremony Grandmaster Kang performed the following creative pattern. I recorded it on my tablet so the quality and stability is not too great.

Grandmaster Kang is a WTF Taekwondo practitioner so my reaction to his form is somewhat mixed, particularly because while I recognise some iconic WTF-style pattern motions, this form is hardly typical of WTF patterns. It is, as I wrote somewhere else, much too flamboyant. Then again, that is part of Grandmaster Kang's character. However, I'm referring to more than just the outfit. I'm more specifically referring to the fluidity and flow, to the ample circular motions, of his pattern, which doesn't reflect even the high level WTF patterns; see for example Ilyo, one of the highest WTF patterns.

Grandmaster Kang's pattern reminds me far more of Taekkyeon patterns than of WTF Taekwondo patterns; consider, for example, these forms by three Taekkyeon grandmasters:

While I see resemblances, what Grandmaster Kang is doing is definitely not Taekkyeon. He is combining rigid WTF fundamental strikes with fluid WTF kicks to create a new form that is maybe more reflective of how WTF is performed in reality. Think about WTF demonstrations: what one often see is the flashy spinning kicks with hardly any hand techniques, rather than the karatesque WTF patterns. So maybe Grandmaster Kang is presenting us with a more authentic WTF, than what we typically see in the WTF patterns.

The white colour and long sleeves of Grandmaster Kang's hanbok does remind me somewhat of the jangsam robe worn by seungmu dancers. Traditionally the seungmu dance was performed by Korean Buddhist monks. I'm not sure, but this may be part of his inspiration.

As an outsider (I'm not a WTF practitioner), it is, to be honest, difficult for me to reconcile my stereotypical expectation of a WTF pattern and the creative form Grandmaster Kang demonstrated at the banquet. Then again, as a grandmaster he is at liberty to perform his martial art whichever way he likes. After all, if it is truly a martial art, there must be room for artistic expression. And as one Taekkyeon grandmaster told me, "Because we live in a civilized society, people don't train in Taekkyeon to learn self-defence, but to enjoy it" (rough paraphrase). The same is most likely true for WTF in South Korea. Since people don't train in WTF Taekwondo in Korea for self-defence purposes there is really no reason why the patterns ought to have practical application. They could just function as a type of "martial dance", and that would be a good description for Grandmaster Kang's pattern, wouldn't it?

26 October 2011

Taekwondo Hall of Fame Citation

Image Source: Taekwondo Hall of Fame
I attended the recent 2011 Taekwondo Hall of Fame ceremony, that was held at the Kukkiwon, Seoul, on August 25th in support of Master Kim Hoon. I knew that he was to receive a citation, so I wanted to be there in representation of 'The Way' Martial Art Academy of Seoul, the only ITF dojang in Seoul. I also went in support of instructors Anton Conchon and David Kerr from Brazil whom I met a few days earlier when they visited 'The Way'. Instructor Conchon received a citation for his contribution as an instructor and Mr. Kerr was inducted for his achievements as a multiple world champion. I was further excited about the opportunity to meet a number of other people I hold in high esteem, for instance Master Noemi Prone of whom I wrote before.

Great was my surprise towards the end of the ceremony when I also heard my own name called. At first I thought it must have been some kind of mistake, but was indeed my name and title, "Research & Education Director for South Africa-ITF", printed on it. Since I wasn't sure what to make of this, I even went so far as to contact the Taekwondo Hall of Fame executive director, Master Gerard Robbins, to ask him why I had received a citation from the organization and how I should report back to my national governing body (SA-ITF). He graciously indulged me and seemed somewhat surprised that I should ask such a question. I guess not that many people ask why they receive something when they receive it; I hope that my inquiry wasn't discourteous. He explained that I received the citation because of my work in research and education for South Africa and for my support of the Taekwondo Hall of Fame and referred to the post I wrote on Master Noemi Prone as an example of said support. He added that: "You can report back to South Africa that you were recognized by the Taekwondo Hall of Fame with a citation for your hard work."

Me and Master Gerard Robbins,
Executive Director of the
Taekwondo Hall of Fame.
On a side note, the certificate erroneously describes me as "Master".  Although Korean martial arts use "master" for an instructor from 4th Dan and higher, within the ITF system one is only called a "master" from 7th Dan. I am still far from there. See my post on the titles used in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Also, for sake of clarification, I was not inducted into the Hall of Fame; I was merely given a general "citation"--an honourable mention. The Taekwondo Hall of Fame has different levels for honouring someone. There are two types of certifications awarded by the Hall of Fame: a citation and an induction. The latter, of course, is when someone becomes a member of the Hall of Fame. This is not the case for someone receiving a citation. Furthermore, as I understand it, there are general citations and specific citations; examples of specific citations are citations for leadership, coaching, and so on. These carry more value than general citations as the one I received.

19 October 2011

The Blue House

Me in front of the "Blue House"
Today I visited the Blue House—the official residency of the Head of State of the Republic of Korea. The Korean name for the Blue House is Cheongwadae 청와대, which literally translates to blue tiled pavilion, referring to the conspicuous aqua blue colour of the tiles of the Reception House (영빈관). While only three buildings, the Reception House and its two adjacent buildings, have blue tiles, the whole compound and a complex of official buildings are all collectively referred to as the Blue House.

The Reception Hall at the Blue House, with its two adjacent
buildings: "Choongmoo" and "Sejong".
ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners may find it interesting to know that the two buildings adjacent to the Reception House are named “Choong-Moo” and “Sejong”. There are two ITF patterns with the same names, referring to two illustrious historic Korean figures.

A statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin,
at Gwangwhamun Plaza, Seoul.
Choong-Moo, of course, refers to Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, the naval commander that protected Korea from attempted Japanese invasions during the Imjin War (1592-1598). Admiral Yi Sun-Shin's strategic naval defence was so ingenious that he even gained the respect of his enemies. The title of “Choong-Moo” was bestowed upon Admiral Yi Sun-Shin posthumously. The title has been given to only nine people—all known as “great generals” or Choongmoogong (충무공 / 忠武公). The hanja characters roughly translate as loyal-martial-male.

A statue of King Sejong the Great,
in Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul.
“Sejong” refers to King Sejong the Great (세종대왕 / 世宗大王). There are only two “Great Kings” in Korean history, King Sejong the Great and King Gwang-Gae To the Great. Both have ITF patterns named after them. Probably King Sejong's greatest contribution to Korea is the creation of Hangeul, the Korean phonetic alphabet. At the time of his reign in the early to middle 1400s most of East Asia, including Korea, used Chinese characters, which is actually a very difficult writing-reading system to acquire. It is said that one has to master around 4000 characters before you can read a Chinese newspaper. For this reason the literacy rate in Korea was terribly low as most peasants did not have the time and luxury to devote to the study of Chinese characters. King Sejong's introduction of Hangeul changed all that and brought literacy to the masses. Hangeul is an extremely easy alphabet. There is a Korean saying that a wise man can learn Hangeul in an afternoon, a fool can learn it in a week. King Sejong also contributed greatly to Korea's advancement in science, technology, literature and the arts.

Another martial art related thing at the Blue House is probably the awful incident that occurred in 1968. Thirty-one North Korean assassins infiltrated the Blue House, purposed to murder then President Park Chung-Hee. The commandos were highly skilled combatants, trained in various skills, including martial arts. During the ensuing conflict with Blue House security 28 of the 31 commandos were killed, one escaped and one was captured. South Korean casualties counted to 26 deaths and 66 wounded—mainly police and military, but also some civilians.

Kim Shin Jo, the North Korean commando that was
captured during the "Blue House Raid" of 1968.
The captured assassin, Kim Shin-Jo, is particularly intriguing from a martial art point of view. After his capture he was often forced to fight South Korean soldiers one-on-one. Much was learned about the hand-to-hand combat ability of North Korea's elite soldiers at the time. I plan to write something about Kim Shin-Jo and how his fighting against South Korean soldiers caused a reformation to the hand-to-hand combat trained by South Korea's special forces. It also gives us a strange glimpse into the possible changes that came into ITF Taekwon-Do when it was taken to North Korea.

Kim Shin-Jo, South Korean citizen and Christian pastor.

"I tried to kill the president. I was the enemy," Kim said. "But the South Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness. I was touched and moved." -- CNN Article
Some interesting facts about Kim Shin-Jo: he is still alive. He is around 70 years old and lives in South Korea as a South Korean citizen. He has converted to Christianity and is actually a pastor of a protestant church in Seoul. While the martial art connection interests me, I'm equally intrigued by the power of the Gospel: what an amazing power that can disarm a hardened killer at an intrinsic level, by changing his life, his way of thinking—turning hatred into mercy!

18 October 2011

Why Taekwon-Do is Not Good for Self-Defence -- Some Clarifications

To my surprise a recent post in which I argue that Taekwon-Do is not a good system for civilian defence opened up a can of worms on a martial art forum. Actually it is not really surprising as the post was intended to be somewhat controversial. I am after all saying that the “Korean Art of Self-Defence” is not good for self-defence. What was surprising is not that people are talking about it, but rather who is talking about it. I would have thought that primarily Taekwon-Do people would take offence, but it seems like it is some people in the traditional martial art community in general, rather than the Taekwon-Do community in particular, who is taking offence. And coming to my defence are Taekwon-Do practitioners, but also practitioners of other traditional martial arts; including in part Dan Djurdjevic, a fellow blogger and martial artist to whom I have referred to on a number of occasions here on the Soo Shim Kwan blog.

You can see the thread where the discussion is happening here.

I decided that I'm not going to engage in the conversation on the thread. Not because I don't like such discussions, but rather because of the lack of time at present to devote to it on a forum. (Forum discussion usually span days and I'm in the middle of Midterm exams requiring me to grade a multitude of papers for at least two weeks.) Also, the post I wrote is part of a larger series of posts (at least in my mind) that started with “What's the Difference Between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido?” and continued with “Techniques: when serious harm is not intended”. Since I'm still in the process of building my argument through these posts I don't want to argue my case just yet as I'm still exploring it for myself.

Back to the thread I mentioned: What I have garnered from the discussion there is that I might be misunderstood to say that Taekwon-Do (and by implication all traditional martial arts) are too dangerous for self-defence because every traditional technique is so potentially lethal. To this I have to reply both yes and no. I will not speak for other traditional arts like for instance Karate, because I'm not a Karateka. I'm speaking solely now for (ITF) Taekwon-Do. Yes, I think that original Taekwon-Do, which I called “authentic”[1] Taekwon-Do in the mentioned post, is not appropriate for civilian defence, because, yes, it is/was too lethal.

The Taekwon-Do pagoda (monument) at
the military base on Jeju Island where
"original" Taekwon-Do was developed as
part of the 29th Infantry Division in the 1950s.
Taekwon-Do—contrary to what the South Korean marketers would have you believe—is not 2000 years old. It did not start as a traditional martial art. While original Taekwon-Do does have roots in primarily Shotokan Karate and some Taekkyeon, as well as some other styles, it's primary development occurred in the 29th Infantry Division of the South Korean Army. At that time it's purpose was as a military combat system. The immediate context was World War II and the Korean War—this is what it was developed for: as a system of hand-to-hand combat to be used in the types of wars of the time. Those involved in developing it were war veterans and some of them, for example Major Nam Tae-Hi, had actual hand-to-hand combat experience on the battlefield. It was later applied and battle tested during the Vietnam War. This is the context of Taekwon-Do's development—actual real war. There are different sources you can read up on this. The one I like the most is A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. (I'm looking forward to read Master George Vitale's recent doctoral thesis on the history of Taekwon-Do.)

Centre: Major Nam Tae Hi, teaching Taekwon-Do
to the Vietnamese Military in the 1960s.
Image Source
In its original form, Taekwon-Do was excessively hard and not appropriate for civilian defence. The type of training involved is also not something that most normal civilians would wish to endure. Practically all of those original masters are suffering from serious arthritis, terrible knee and / or hip joint problems and other ailments that can be directly linked to the harsh type of training they partook in. Original Taekwon-Do, as practised in the early South Korean military, was not meant for civilian use. Taekwon-Do only later became a traditional martial art taught to civilians; the moment it started being taught to civilians it started to change.

The other point I made in my post was that Taekwon-Do as it is mostly taught today is nothing like original Taekwon-Do. It is something that is terribly watered down and it too is not appropriate for civilian self-defence, not because it is necessarily too dangerous; rather the opposite. In this watered down state, what is taught as “self-defence” is usually unrealistic. (See: “Why I Don't Like Your Self-Defence”.) It is furthermore not good as a civilian defence system because unlike many other traditional martial arts it does not have a fully developed arsenal of “control” techniques. While control techniques are not the only valuable techniques for civilian defence, they definitely are one important set of techniques for civilian defence.

The reason Taekwon-Do does not have a proper arsenal of control techniques is because it was not originally meant as a civilian defence system—it was meant as a military combat system. The original control techniques that Taekwon-Do could have inherited from the styles (e.g. Karate and Taekkyeon) it developed out of were mostly dropped because such techniques were not considered effective for military combat. Remember that a military combat system is an infantryman's last resort. It is used when your artillery failed. You don't use it to control the enemy, like a policeman might do with a petty-criminal, you use it in a desperate act of defence in which it is quite likely that you will die, lest you eliminate the enemy soldier directly in front of you as swiftly as possible.

A photo of Hapkido "founder" Choi Yong Sul with
students in 1951. While Taekwon-Do was developing
in the military, Hapkido was being established outside
the military; i.e. as a civilian martial art.
Image Source
The other thing that prevented Taekwon-Do from building up an arsenal of control techniques is that another martial art entered the civilian scene while Taekwon-Do was still focussing on the military scene—Hapkido; and unlike Taekwon-Do, Hapkido was at the time almost exclusively preoccupied with control techniques. Early Hapkido (known as Hapki-Yoosool) was for all intends and purposes basically Japanese jujitsu—more specifically, Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu. This earliest form of Hapkido had practically no strikes or kicks. These only came later. I'm hypothesizing that while Taekwon-Do filled the military combat niche back then, Hapkido filled the civilian defence niche. No wonder that when Taekwon-Do did become a system taught to civilians in Korea it evolved into something wholly different—a sport, in the form of WTF taekwondo [2]—for that was the obvious remaining niche [3]. Hapkido techniques were assimilated into Taekwon-Do, but this obviously occurred later.

For Taekwon-Do to function as a proper civilian defence system requires a number of things. I mentioned some of those things in the previous post. For one, it must take account of what is currently taught as self-defence and admit that it is not very reflective of reality. Also, it needs more “soft” style techniques. This is what I'm currently researching—the soft techniques in Taekwon-Do and how they can be used for civilian defensive purposes. The specific type of techniques I'm currently preoccupied with is pushing techniques.

I'm not saying that Taekwon-Do cannot be used for (civilian) self-defence. It can. However, the current thing that is most commonly taught as “self-defence” in many Taekwon-dojang is not appropriate for actual real life self-defence. Neither is a complete return to Taekwon-Do's military combat roots. The solution is to be found some place else and will also require the adoption of “foreign” techniques. Many instructors have already done so (as have I), so some people reading this post may actually have no idea what the whole fuss is about.

Finally, I'm speaking of “civilian self-defence” contextualised within a relatively “civil society.”

Footnote 1: I used the term “authentic” Taekwon-Do in the previous post, rather than “original” Taekwon-Do. The reason is because of the many splits in Taekwon-Do many people are claiming to teach “original” Taekwon-Do. What I am actually trying to say when I use “authentic” or “original” Taekwon-Do with in the context of these post is that early form of Taekwon-Do that developed within the 29th Infantry Division of the South Korean Army in the 1950s.

Footnote 2: The taekwondo currently taught to soldiers in general in the South Korean military is not the original actual combat focussed version that it once was. Now it is a version of Kukki/WTF taekwondo and soldiers are actually awarded Kukki/WTF black belts during their military service. Soldiers in special force units, for instance the South Korean navy seals learn a different and much more effective hand-to-hand combat system.

Footnote 3: There is actually another remaining niche, an ascetic one. In Korea the most iconic martial art focussing on asceticism is probably Seon Moo Do (Zen Martial Way), practised at two or three Buddhist monasteries in South Korea. There is, however, no mainstream martial art with a clear ascetic focus in Korea, in the same way as Aikido in Japan. Most all Korean martial arts have some ascetic components, ITF Taekwon-Do slightly more so than most, but it is not so heavily focussed that one could call them true ascetic martial arts, and none really fill the ascetic niche. Unlike Japan that is a mostly secular society and an ascetic martial art like Aikido may actually fill some “spiritual” need, Korea is not as secular. Both Christianity and Buddhism are very active in South Korea, so that an ascetic search is more likely to be catered for by religion than martial arts.

12 October 2011

Targeting Plexuses

Image Source
Like many martial artists, I have an interest in pressure points. There are some problems, however, with targeting pressure points during a fight. Pressure points are best activated at very specific angles. For instance, some pressure points are only activated when the force applied to them presses at a 45 degree. Not to mention how small pressure points tend to be. If you are two centimetres of target, the pressure point is hardly affected. Further more, pressure points do not react the same to the same stimuli. Some are best activated through direct continuous pressure—being pressed, others are activated through a pulse—being hit, and others are activated through friction—being rubbed. These variables make pressure point attacks quite difficult.

For this reason I like to target pressure points that are easy to access; in other words, the target area is relatively big. Therefore I like to target plexuses. A “plexus” is a cluster of intersection nerves; in other words, a group of nerves that come together in a type of nerve knot.

Celiac Plexus with Surrounding Organs
Image Source
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Probably the most famous plexus for martial artists is the solar plexus. Better known in academic circles as the celiac plexus, the solar plexus is situated vertically roughly a little below the bottom of the sternum (xyphoid process), but embedded deep into the trunk. In Taekwon-Do it is generally reached with a penetrating punch, rear elbow thrust, turning kick or side-piercing kick. Because the solar plexus contain nerves that link to most of the internal organs, trauma to this plexus can shock a person's whole system. However, the celiac plexus is seated deeper into the torso than most people imagine, so actually striking the “solar plexus” is not that easy. The adverse affects achieved by attacking the “solar plexus” are most likely a result of other vulnerable targets in the same area, for instance the highly fragile xyphoid process, which is a cartridge bone that breaks quite easily; the diaphragm that goes numb when struck and makes it difficult to breath—being “winded”; the stomache, which, when full, can cause nausea if struck; and so on. Some people, especially large (i.e. overweight) people, may not be adversely affected when the “solar plexus” is targeted, purely because of the layer of protective blubber. While the celiac plexus is in theory a great target, it is not always as easy to reach.

Image Source

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One of the plexus that I believe is the easiest to access is the brachial plexus, a group of nerves that runs from the spine through the side-front of the neck, disappears under the clavicle (collarbone) into the axilla (armpit) and then disperse into the arm. What I like about this plexus is that a good amount of trauma will severely affect the whole arm because the brachial plexus contains the arm's major nerves: ulna nerve, radial nerve and medial nerve. Other nerves, like some of the pectoral nerves and scapular nerves, also make up part of the brachial plexus. The place to reach it is just above the clavicle (collarbone) on the side-front of the neck. The nerves lie relatively shallow, so they are easy to strike. An efficient attack for this target is the inward knife-hand strike travelling at a somewhat downward angle, like the inward knife-hand strike in movement #2 in the pattern Won-Hyo. You can also use a side-fist strike to hammer into this target. A less easy place to target the brachial plexus, but one that is also highly effective, is in the armpit. Were your attacker swinging towards you with a hay maker punch, you could possibly duck-and-weave, while striking the armpit with your first, preferably a middle-knuckle fist for most penetration. Breaking the clavicle will also affect the brachial plexus. Trauma to the brachial plexus results in severe pain and possible (temporary) loss of motor control much of the arm or even complete (temporary) paralysis of the arm.

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In close proximity of the brachial plexus is the cervical plexus, which is also relatively easy to access. The “superficial cervical plexus” is located vertically in line with the Angle of Mandible (the point behind the earlobe), down towards the middle of the neck. Because this plexus have nerves going up into the skull, trauma to it causes an unnerving affect on the side of the face and head. It can also lead to possible unconsciousness. An easy attack to the cervical plexus is a knife-hand or side-fist strike. Turning kicks (aka roundhouse kicks) to the plexus have also caused many a knock-out in Taekwon-Do, Muay Thai boxing, MMA and similar tournaments. (Honestly, I'm not sure if the knock-outs we most often see with kicks to this plexus is truly because of trauma to the cervical plexus itself, or merely because of the trauma caused to the head, i.e. brain, in general.) It is an easily accessible plexus and is not necessarily that dangerous if activated with care by a professional; however, it's close proximity to the brain makes this a dangerous vital spot to target, especially with kicks which are less precise, so only train it under the instruction of a professional instructor.

In summary, plexuses are clusters of nerves. Unlike a single pressure point that requires very precise activation, a plexus is bigger and therefore easier to activate. The solar plexus is probably the most famous plexus in the martial arts, but it is actually quite difficult to reach as it is embedded deep into the torso. Much more attainable plexuses are the brachial plexus and the cervical plexus, both situated in the neck area. When training to attack these targets make sure to do so under the supervision of a professional.

10 October 2011

Why Taekwon-Do is Not Good for Self-Defence

In this post I want to explain why I think Taekwon-Do is not good for self-defence and it is probably not for the reasons you might expect. Paradoxically, I think that authentic Taekwon-Do is too good a system, and for this very reason it is a bad form of defence for civilians.

Taekwon-Do is called the Korean Art of Self-Defence. The Korean version of the Condensed ITF Encyclopaedia states: “이런 점이 태권도를 호신예술이라 부르는 리유의 하나이라 하겠다.” The definition of Taekwon-Do is distilled in this idea: Taekwon-Do as a 'self-defence art'—호신예술. When taught and trained properly, I do not doubt the effectiveness of Taekwon-Do as a good combat system. Unfortunately it is exactly this point that has me concerned. Taekwon-Do is too effective. When trained particularly for combat, Taekwon-Do looks almost exactly like Krav Maga, another exceptional combat system. The problem with both these styles is that they are brutally effective. When performed correctly they will seriously injure the opponent, possibly fracture something, and can cause death. The reason for this is that both styles were developed as systems of combat for military purposes. There is a reason why Alex Gillis called his book on Taekwon-Do's history “A Killing Art”.

Korean Soldiers in Vietnam were versed in early forms of Taekwon-Do
Image Source
When you are on the battlefield with your attacker intending to kill you, retaliation of the kind that authentic Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga offers is reasonable—in fact, it is expected. However, very few of us are combatants engaging national enemies. Our attackers may indeed be violent criminals intend on killing us, in which case we need to defend ourself at the level of brutality that such an encounter necessitates, but a significant percentage of attacks do not by default require the type of aggression and savagery asked for by a combatant on a battlefield. As non-combatants, in other words as civilians, living in normal society rather than the battlefield, we are required by law to act civil. Even when we are attacked, law puts certain limits on self-defence. Law does not allow me to break the knee of a pickpocket. Law will look very unfavourably on me for fracturing with repeated elbow strikes the skull of a man that hit me once in the face. Killing someone unless I can prove that my life was in definite jeopardy will have me incarcerated. The law only allows me to use the amount of force to escape from the situation and nothing more. Imagine being attacked by your drunk Uncle Fred at the family reunion. This is where the problem with martial arts like Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga comes in. We have great arsenals of combative techniques, but a lousy arsenal for civilian defence. Styles like Taekwon-Do and Krav Maga lacks the more civil techniques required when you do not need to fracture someone's skull.

In modern society where the rule of law is generally in effect, a softer type of martial art that will limit the physical damage to the opponent is better. Proper Taekwon-Do, like Krav Maga, is too barbarous.

Since true combative violence is frowned upon by normal society, Taekwon-Do has undergone some serious changes, particularly in the way it is packaged to the masses. The focus has moved away from it being taught as an actual military combat system, to it being presented as sport or a recreational activity. Emphasis is put on tournament sparring, which has little value for actual self-defence; or emphasis is put on it as an artistic discipline, not much different from dance or an ascetic discipline such as yoga. Self-defence practised in this version of Taekwon-Do is highly stylised, basically choreographed performances. What is left is something that looks like it could be used for self-defence, but it has been tamed to such a degree that if a real violent attack were to occur, combined with the chaos that goes along with real life violence, it would be ill-equipped to handle the situation. Basically, it is a type of pre-arranged sparring pretending to be self-defence.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that Taekwon-Do provides us with two extremes, neither of which is ideal for civilians in a civil society wanting to defend themselves. On the one hand we have a brutal combat system that is of value for combatants on a battlefield, but does not provide us with the delicate tools to properly take care of a much less violent civilian situation, like when your drunk uncle Fred gets raucous at the family reunion. The Taekwon-Do combatant is equipped with kicks, punches, strikes, all of which will severely hurt dear uncle Fred. On the other hand, we have a recreational activity with ritualised and stylistic combat mimicking which is great for teaching children discipline or wonderful as an artistic or ascetic recreation. Regrettably to achieve this level of “civility” Taekwon-Do has been watered down so much and been stylised to such a degree that if a real violent situation occurs, it often lacks the authenticity of genuine fighting that real self-defence against real violence call for.

It is within the context of normal civilians living in generally law-abiding societies that I think Taekwon-Do is not a good system for actual self-defence. The type of “self-defence” required in these societies are not the type of “self-defence” that real Taekwon-Do offers. What authentic Taekwon-Do offers is much too barbarous to fit in a civil society and its usuage is likely to get you thrown in jail. An apt form of “self-defence” in a relatively civil society will be a system with less hard attacks and more controlling (i.e. “soft style”) techniques.

I believe that there is a solution to this problem, but it will require a serious rethinking of how Taekwon-Do is practised. It will require a re-evaluation of what self-defence in a civil society—rather than the battlefield—looks like. It will require a re-evaluation of the types of techniques that are typically trained, with a new emphasis on “soft” techniques, and may even require the adoption of “foreign” techniques. And finally, it will require the honesty to admit that what is often practised as “self-defence” are instead stylized rituals that mimics fighting, but is not the real thing. We have to rethink the purpose of Taekwon-Do as a civilian defence system, rather than a martial system, i.e. a system intended for warfare.

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Now having said that Taekwon-Do is not good for self-defence in a typically civil society, there are societies that are not as civil as the one I allude to above, where crimes are often violent and life threatening. I'm thinking, for example, of my home country, South Africa. In such a violent society almost all direct encounters with crime are potentially life threatening. Self-defence in this type of society is much different from a society like the one I live in presently, South Korea, where cases of violent crimes are ridiculously low. In a country where violent crimes are prevalent, authentic Taekwon-Do with its brutishly effective techniques are indeed a good system for self-defence. Unfortunately, Taekwon-Do is seldom taught in its authentic combat focussed form, so that what people often learn are the “stylistic combat mimicking” I spoke about earlier, instead of the “Killing Art” it originally was.

Of course, speaking about self-defence, it is important to remember that training in self-defence is a much bigger issue than merely the acquisition of an arsenal of techniques.

If you are really interested in self-defence, consider these books as starters:

I highly recommend both.

What do you know about pushing techniques?

Readers of this blog, I need your input!

I'm in the process of researching pushing techniques 미로술기 in Taekwon-Do for a post I wish to write. Unfortunately there are hardly any resources available on the topic and the ITF Encyclopaedia also has very little to say about the topic.

If you think you understand how pushing techniques work in Taekwon-Do, or if your instructors have ever explained pushing techniques in any special way, or if you have seen interesting approaches to pushing techniques, please let me know.

Any ideas are welcome.



06 October 2011

Totally Tae Kwon Do

This month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine contains my contribution "5 Types of Blocking", which evolved from an earlier post here on the Soo Shim Kwan blog.

Issue #32 also contains reports from the recent ITF World Championships that was hosted in Pyeongyang, North Korea, including the news of Master George Vitale who defended his doctorate thesis in North Korea, focussing on the history of Taekwon-Do and its benefits. 

02 October 2011

Techniques: when serious harm is not intended

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that a major difference between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido is that Taekwon-Do traditionally does not have “arresting techniques”, known in Korean as chepo-sulgi 체포술기. These are techniques used to control and pin an opponent—for instance joint locks—that you can use to “arrest” your opponent; in other words, keep him still and compliant while you wait for the police to arrive and take him away. One uses these types of techniques when you do not wish to seriously harm a person. Taekwon-Do was developed in the South Korean military, within the contexts of WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It's purpose was not for civilian use, but military use. Techniques are therefore intended to harm, not control, the opponent. How then, do we handle a situation in which you do not wish to seriously harm your opponent?

There are two categories of techniques that the Taekwon-Do aresenal does include which are less brutal in nature. Unfortunately, even these techniques are not all that safe and can still cause serious injury—indirectly in the case of the first category, and directly, if performed without the necessary control, in the case of the other. These two categories are pushing techniques and throwing techniques.

Pushing Techniques 미로술기

Almost all techniques in Taekwon-Do employ attacking and blocking tools that are innately hard and often conditioned to make them harder still. Furthermore, the force is often concentrated onto small surface areas, for example only the first two knuckles instead of the whole fist, to increase the pressure and so cause more injury.

Pushing techniques, on the other hand, frequently use softer parts of the anatomy and have the force spread over larger surface areas, for instance the open palms. When pushing techniques are performed with harder anatomical structures like the forearms, it is done in such away that the opponent is not hurt. The purpose is not to cause direct damage; rather, the purpose of a pushing technique is to break the structural integrity—or more specifically, the equilibrium—of the opponent and to create distance between oneself and one's opponent. Pushing techniques can be described as “soft techniques” 유술기.

Although pushing techniques can be used against a person with little direct harm, they can still be indirectly dangerous. Pushing techniques are generally aimed at breaking the opponent's balance, often causing the opponent to fall. People not versed in proper break falling methods are more likely to get hurt when falling. People have died from falling and hitting their heads against a hard surface. Pushing techniques are better than other offensive techniques if you do not wish to hurt someone, but they still carry a measure of risk.

Throwing Techniques 던지기

According to the ITF Encyclopaedia, one reason for doing a throwing technique is “when you do not wish to seriously injure an opponent” (Volume 5, p. 341). The reason is not that throwing techniques are not dangerous, but because a person acquainted with throwing techniques can more easily control how hard they perform the throw. Depending on the type of throw, one can also sometimes prevent the opponent's head from hitting the floor. Throwing is therefore a relatively safer category of techniques if you do not wish that much harm to your opponent. The problem, however, is that it is not always that easy to control a throwing technique. During moments of duress you may perform the throw harder than intended, especially if adrenalin is rushing through your system. Also, a person that does not know proper break falling techniques may still get injured, even if the throw is performed with reasonable control.

In conclusion, pushing techniques and controlled throwing techniques are offensive techniques that can be used if you do not wish to cause too serious and direct injury to an opponent. Beware, however, that accidental injury can still occur. Personally I believe that since most of us do not practise Taekwon-Do for military combat use, we need to further supplement our Taekwon-Do arsenal with techniques that are more appropriate for civilian defence.